I stared up at the looming edifice in the crisp winter afternoon. I found it hard to believe that this was my house now, that after all these years I was returning as its master. The circumstances weren’t at all what I’d wanted, but then again, what had I expected? There was no other way.
“My house,” I muttered. How many times had I called it that as a child? Yet now, to actually utter the words felt wrong. They held a new meaning, a meaning that didn’t seem at all right.
There was a loud clatter as Mike slid open the door of the moving van. “Let’s get started,” he said.
“Go ahead and start unloading,” I replied to Mike and my other two friends, Eric and Ryan. “I’m going to go through and get all the doors open.” I fished a heavy set of keys from my pocket—one for every room. I knew from my parents’ in-house nurse that most of the doors inside were locked. It kept them from getting too lost, she said.
The entryway smelled strongly of dust, and beneath that was a subtle odor that I recognized immediately. Every house has a peculiar scent, one you can detect on any of its residents and that defines the family. This was my smell, my family’s smell. It smelled like home.
Leaving the front door open for my friends as they began carting in furniture, I strode down the hallway, pausing at each door as I searched for the right key to open it. Once I was done with the first floor, I headed upstairs. There were five bedrooms up there and a bathroom. Once more I worked my way down, unlocking doors until I came to the last room on the right, the master bedroom. I got as far as putting the key to the lock when I paused. This was where it had happened. I slowly withdrew my hand. There was no reason to go in there. No reason to disturb that room.
Returning downstairs I was met with a surprise. Several boxes were stacked in the hallway, and all three of my friends had shed their coats and were brushing large clumps of snow from their limbs.
“That blizzard came out of nowhere,” said Ryan.
I glanced out the window. Indeed, I couldn’t see across the street, the snow was falling so heavily. “The weatherman didn’t call for a storm,” I said.
“Well, you know how reliable they are,” answered Eric. “There’s no point working in that, so we figured we’d just crash for a while and wait it out.”
So that’s exactly what we did. We unpacked the few boxes that had made it inside and rearranged some of the already-existing furniture, but the storm showed no signs of waning.
“Guess that’s what you get for moving so close to the Great Lakes,” said Ryan as we stared out the windows. “I hope your microwave made it inside.”
It had, and so we prepared a quick dinner which we ate in the living room. I started a roaring blaze in the fireplace. It got dark outside quickly, owing to the short winter days and the raging blizzard, and before long our little corner of the house was the only one still blessed with light. Everywhere else had fallen into hushed and dusty darkness. We laughed heartily, letting the echoes of our mirth fill the chamber in defiance of winter’s fury. What could the storm do to us in here? We had warmth and light, and our good humor ignited our spirits as it reverberated off the walls, bouncing from ceiling to floor, corner to corner until the entire room seemed alive with cheerful idiots. It was more than our cozy chamber could contain. Our laughter spilled out into empty corridors where it struggled with the darkness, failed, and died miserably away. Just like Mother.
“Hey,” bellowed Eric, the remnants of a joke still showing at the corners of his eyes, “what’s come over you?”
I recovered myself. “Sorry,” I apologized. “Say, the other week…”
The mood was restored as I launched into a comical tale invented on the spot. Our laughter resumed, and I followed it as it soared over my head and out the door to my back, out once more into those darkened hallways where nothing but shadows moved. I listened as it stirred the dust in its last feeble death throes; watched as the shapes, satisfied that their murderous work was done, retreated to their quiet posts.
“Are you sure you’re alright?” asked Ryan.
“My imagination,” I replied, shaking my head as I turned back to face my friends. “Perhaps I should get myself to bed.”
Eric spared a glance at the dusty grandfather clock that rested in the corner. “If that old thing still worked,” he said, “then I dare say we should all follow your lead.”
“It’s worse than that, I’m afraid,” said Mike, looking up from his watch. “I suggest we call it a night before we all start having hallucinations. Who knows what the midnight hour could do to our fragile minds?”
Everyone chuckled at his remark, except me.
Familiarity breeds fear. Paradoxical, I know. Perhaps you can’t realize when things are wrong unless you are intimately aware of how things should be. As I walked the corridors on my way to bed, I was aware. I had, after all, grown up in this house. I knew all its nooks and crannies. I knew how shadows fell across the floor and climbed up the walls. I knew the lumpy mass hovering to my right was just father’s coat hanging on a doorknob, except that father was dead, and there was no door there.
But why shouldn’t there have been a door there? I pondered the question as I passed, refusing to give the lumpy shape a second glance. Yes, there should have been. Once everything was settled down, I’d have one installed. Who cared if it opened onto nothing? At least then there’d be a reason for father’s coat to hang there, on a doorknob that did not exist.
I reached my room, shut the door, locked it. Then I wondered what would happen if I had to get out in the middle of the night. I reminded myself that it already was the middle of the night, and my other worry—what if something tried to get in?—kept me from unlocking it. But what would want to get in? I tried not to think about it as I changed into my pajamas and climbed into bed. It was my house—except it wasn’t; it was my parents’ house.
I settled down under the covers, sinking into the silence of my parents’ house. Elsewhere, my friends were quickly falling asleep, unfamiliar, unaware. They couldn’t possibly realize that the tree which they’d all admired for its aged charm earlier in the day was just a couple feet too far to the left for it to cast that particular shadow, the one that looked like a hand upon the wall.
“Best get moving quickly,” announced Mike as we emerged from the house. “The radio says last night’s storm was just the beginning. We’re about to get walloped.”
I really couldn’t have chosen a worse time to move, but there was nothing to be done about it now. We hastily cleared a path through the foot of snow and began carting boxes and furniture inside. We had a few moments of brilliant sunshine, sparkling off the whitewashed ground like diamonds, before the clouds rolled in again. The snowflakes began to tumble lazily from the sky, and when the lake effect began to fall in earnest, we closed up the van and called it a day.
“We’ll be at this all week if it keeps up,” huffed Ryan, stomping his boots in the entryway. “I hope you’re not in a hurry to get rid of us.”
I was in no hurry; in fact I loathed the moment when I’d have to enter the house by myself, to sit and walk and sleep in its emptiness, no one to talk to or laugh with. I might’ve gone even so far as to say I was afraid—not out loud, of course.
We spent the rest of the afternoon shoving boxes into their proper rooms, sorting through my parents’ old possessions to decide what I’d keep and what I’d throw out. I felt horribly guilty every time I placed an item in the garbage pile, convinced that it must’ve held some sentimental value. I wondered if Mother and Father would disapprove of my ruthless sorting. I wondered if they’d even recognize most of the heirlooms.
Above the constant din of our work, the radio crackled, struggling for clear reception as the storm mucked up the signal. The weatherman prophesied a bleak forecast: at least another two feet of snow by tonight, as much as three come tomorrow morning. I wondered if my friends would ever be able to leave. They apparently shared similar sentiments.
“Well,” said Eric, stretching his sore arms, “I’ve had about enough for today. No rush, right, since we’re stuck here until spring.”
We all voiced our agreement with weak laughs and, fetching some microwave dinners from the kitchen, retired to the living room. The fire crackled merrily as we ate, and afterward we fell to talking, just as we had the previous night. The storm this time was fiercer, though, and its moans shook the house as it tried to find a way inside. The cheering effects of the warm fireplace and our full bellies were dampened beneath the ferocity of the blizzard. Our jokes were few and far between, and our conversation slid ever closer to dark subjects.
At last Eric sighed. “What a storm. Nights like this are really only good for one thing.” He cast his gaze about the room, eyeing each of us in turn with a meaningful expression. “The telling of ghost stories.”
Maybe it was the way he said it. Maybe the winter gale had finally found a chink in the house’s armor. Maybe it was something else. We all shivered at his suggestion—or was it just me?
“Come now,” he chided us with a sneer. “We’re all men. Show some nerve! Or…do you actually believe in ghosts?”
Did I believe in ghosts? Whether I did or not was irrelevant. If they did exist, then the only ones I had to worry about in this house—in my house—were Mother and Father. Why should I be afraid of them?
“Well then,” Eric continued, “since you’re all so spineless, I’ll go first.”
He launched into his tale quietly, whispering so we had to lean forward in our chairs to listen. It turned out Eric was a masterful storyteller. As he expounded on the details of his fictional specter, made all too real by the groaning of the wind, I realized I’d chosen the seat with its back to the door and the cold darkness beyond. I was terribly aware of that empty space, that gasping space, and the air seemed to cringe behind me. Eric was reaching the climax of his story. His voice was more hushed than ever. Mike and Ryan were eating it up, but I could barely hear. I strained to make out the words, but the harder I tried, the more impossible it seemed. I felt cut off from my friends, pulled further away into the lonely dark with each passing second, until I thought for sure they’d pass out of sight and hearing forever—
“Better stop, Eric” Ryan said teasingly. “Our host looks like he’s about to faint.”
The shadows relinquished their hold, retreated into their proper corners, and I was amongst my friends again. “My parents died in this house, you know.”
My friends exchanged nervous glances. “Yes,” replied Mike, “you told us at the funeral.”
“It happened in the master bedroom,” I went on as if he hadn’t said anything. “That’s the room next door to yours, Mike.” Then I realized everyone was staring at me, confused, scared. “I’m sorry. I’m not sure why I—”
“Quite alright,” assured Mike, “but I may demand that we trade rooms!”
“I’m sorry,” I repeated. “I don’t know what’s come over me the past few days.”
“You’re probably just tired,” said Eric. “We all are, I’m sure, what with all this heavy lifting, and in such bad weather, too.”
“We could all use some extra rest,” Ryan agreed. “Maybe we should turn in early tonight.”
So we did. My three friends followed me upstairs, three sets of footsteps echoing my own. The first disappeared as we passed Ryan’s room. He said goodnight, and was gone. The second vanished shortly after, then the third. The fourth persisted, and I steadfastly ignored it. I was careful, as I entered my bedroom and shut the door, not to turn, for in turning I might see, and in seeing I might lose my already tenuous grasp on reason.
I changed quickly and dove between the blankets, not giving myself time to wonder if I’d made the bed that morning or if the sheets had been mussed up like that all day. I lay there, far from restful, my eyes darting here and there as I tried to keep them from resting on any one spot long enough to notice what was wrong. Deep down, I hoped one of my friends had noticed something. Maybe Mike, who slept next door to my parents’ bedroom, was frightened enough by my outburst in the living room to seek companionship. The hope died within me. We were all grown men; pride would never allow us such an admission of weakness. Indeed, that was what prevented me from venturing out in search of comfort.
I was ashamed of myself. There I was, cowering like a child in my own house—my parents’ house, I reminded myself. It had never been mine, not since I moved out to start college. No, I was a stranger now. I had no more right to call the place mine than Eric or Mike or Ryan. A stranger in my parents’ house.
I finally tried closing my eyes, and that helped. Blind, I couldn’t notice the wayward shadows. I couldn’t acknowledge the drifting shapes. I could only listen. Listening, I could only be aware of the howling wind, the groaning house, the knocking pipes. Then there was a high-pitched whine, a click. I opened my eyes, and by the sudden absence of my alarm clock’s gentle glow, I knew the power was out.
I crawled reluctantly out of bed. Without power, there was no heat. Without heat, we’d all be frozen to death by morning. I remembered that my father’d had a generator put in the basement when I was a child, so with a shiver I began the long trek through the house.
Familiarity breeds fear. You can always tell when you pass by something that isn’t there, or fail to pass by something that is. It’s the emptiness you feel pulling at your shoulder or the small of your back, the presence that pushes against you, begging to be acknowledged. In the darkness, unless you’re familiar with your surroundings, you can’t be aware of these things. If you know, then you can’t ignore them.
With my friends all accounted for, sleeping in their unfamiliar beds, the hallways were empty. I felt compelled down the expanse as a howling filled my ears. The sucking, hollow, rasping breath of my parents’ house. Of course it was just the wind and the heat, unsustained by electricity, being drained out by the winter storm. Of course it was.
I came to a halt at the top of the stairs. About a quarter of the way down, resting on one of the steps, was a dark, amorphous shape. It might’ve been just a shadow—but what could’ve cast it? I had to make a choice, and I decided that, if it moved, I’d return to bed, pile on some extra blankets, and deal with the cold until morning. I waited. The shape didn’t move. Hesitantly, I descended. Just a shadow, after all. Every step had one, and every step cast its own dark silhouette on the one below. Still, when I reached that step, I skipped over it.
What I saw of the first floor, illuminated by the feeble brightness of the blowing snow, was desolate, foreign. It made me think of my parents and of their decayed minds right before the end. I hurried through, holding my breath lest I inhale some remnant of their disease that clung to the walls, oozed across the floor, or dripped from the ceiling; some scrap of delirium manifested in the creeping forms that any other man, less familiar with the angles and physics of the house, would’ve dismissed as a trick of the light.
I reached the basement door and marched down the steps, feeling those tiny gaps between the stair treads grasping at my heels. It was utterly black down there, and I had to rely on memory to find where the generator rested. After a few minutes of stumbling around blindly, I stubbed my toe against it. Kneeling down, I ran my fingers along its cool surface, fumbling as I tried to get the machine going.
As the light flickered on, there was a fleeting impression at the edge of my vision, a fluttering of panicked energy. I turned my attention toward the source beheld the dimly lit basement, cluttered with forgotten bundles and boxes. Some of the debris I recognized from my childhood. Others were unfamiliar. I tried to track down where the flurry of motion had hidden itself. Was it behind that crate? Under that blanket? I realized I was being foolish. What would I do if I found what I was looking for? Break my neck as I scrambled up the uneven steps, screaming like a little girl? I turned my back on the basement and flipped the light switch off. I was better off not seeing.
I thundered back upstairs, back through the shifting corridors, past the shapes that I told myself weren’t really there. My hand fumbled on the doorknob to my bedroom. Of course I had shut the door, right? I must have, because it was closed, and there was, I insisted, nothing else that could’ve shut it.
Finally, I stumbled inside, none too gracefully as I tripped over a pile of clothes that I knew shouldn’t have been there.
“What’re you doing?” asked Eric as he propped himself up sleepily.
“Wr-rong room,” I apologized, backing out slowly and shutting the door. Lost in my own house! I couldn’t help but recall how all the doors had been locked when we first arrived to keep them from getting lost. Now it was happening to me. That’s why I was noticing things. Nothing was different, nothing was wrong at all. It was me.
I counted the rooms carefully this time as I proceeded all the way down to the end of the hall, making sure I chose the door on the left, the one that stood open. Had I closed it? I couldn’t remember anymore, and with a chilling sense of doom I realized I was turning into them.
I lay down in my bed, and realized I was shaking. I tried to ignore the noises, the shadows—all the aberrations that my familiarity with the house allowed me to detect. They were not aberrations. I was the aberration, just like they had been to each other. I wondered if I’d recognize my friends when I woke up.
The storm, blessedly, had stopped by the time the sun rose. The skies were clear, and my three friends, whom I recognized with an overwhelming sense of relief, helped me finish unloading the moving van.
“Looks like that’s it,” said Ryan as he slid the door shut.
“Thanks for all your help, guys,” I said. “Sorry things got dragged out like that.”
Mike shrugged off the apology. “Can’t control the weather. At least the roads are clear.”
Snowplows had been buzzing back and forth while we worked, allaying our fears of being stranded. The electricity had been restored, and everything seemed cheerful in spite of my harrowing night.
“Listen,” said Eric. “Since we won’t be seeing as much of each other anymore, what do you say to grabbing lunch somewhere before we head out?”
I agreed, and we piled into my car and drove down the street to a small diner where we talked and joked and laughed one last time together. It was unbelievably pleasant, getting out of my parents’ house for once. It had only been three days, but already I’d grown weary of the empty hallways and dusty chambers and that locked bedroom on the second floor. It would be that much more desolate once my friends were gone. I’d be alone, utterly alone in that expansive house so full of shadows and so terribly familiar. I began to wonder why I’d agreed to take the house. Why, after all my siblings had stated their lack of interest in the place, had I foolishly decided to move in? I was cutting myself off from my friends, trading their cheerful conversation for a constant reminder of my parents’ pitiful end.
“It was my mother. You know how bad both their Alzheimer’s was, but it was Mother who started it. She didn’t recognize my father, got startled, and knocked his head against the mirror. The strain was too much for them both, and they died like that, tearing at each other, each convinced in their own mind that they were fighting off an intruder. They never liked strangers coming into their house.”
I realized with some embarrassment that my friends were all staring at me from across the table, their burgers hovering awkwardly beneath their gaping mouths. Their eyes were full of concern and bewilderment.
“You know,” said Eric, “I’m not sure you know how to have a good time.”
“You’re looking kind of pale,” Ryan chimed in. “Are you sure you’re alright?”
“Sorry,” I sighed. “Just pretend I didn’t say that. Memories, you know.”
They all nodded slowly, their eyes betraying a lack of understanding.
We finished our lunch in relative silence before driving back to the house. We said our goodbyes, then my friends climbed into the moving van and left me alone. Alone I turned to face my parents’ house, and alone I crossed the familiar threshold, shutting the front door quietly behind me and locking it. I gazed about me, studying the piles of boxes yet to be unpacked. One of them was half open, throwing a flimsy cardboard flap into the air to reveal its crowded contents. I stared sickly at it in the knowledge that we hadn’t opened any boxes that morning. They were all taped shut—I had taped them all shut, right? I thought about going over and closing up that rebellious box, but then, whether by a draft or something else, the loose panel quivered. It was a slight movement that I may have imagined, but all the same I turned my back on it and climbed upstairs.
The second floor hallway gaped at me, its windowless expanse clouded with murky shadows, punctuated by pale shafts of light from the bedrooms—at least, the ones whose doors were open. At the far end, on the right, there was nothing to dispel the darkness. As I approached the heart of the gloom, the corridor marked my progress. A door hinge creaked to my left, a sighing draft hissed past my ear, the floor squeaked beneath my feet. I was being watched, prodded. I felt unwelcome, a stranger in my parents’ house.
I reached the end of the hall and fished the ring of keys from my pocket. As long as that door remained shut, I’d have no peace. If it was allowed to keep its secrets, then they’d haunt me forever. The only way to break the spell, I thought, was to open that door and release whatever lay coiled inside.
The lock clicked, the knob turned, the hinges reluctantly moved. Had I been expecting something? A rush of wind, a sound of panicked discovery? There was nothing. It was all as I remembered: the king-sized bed was unmade, the sheets were tangled unceremoniously atop the mattress, the dresser was covered with dust and tiny sparkling shards, pieces of the shattered mirror above. Toward this item I was drawn. I examined my reflection in the jagged remains of the mirror, observed the emptiness of the bedroom behind me. Then, compelled by a cold, invisible force, my face cracked against the broken glass.